In early July 2018, the FDA released an alert about a possible connection with Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs fed grain-free diets. The release understandably caused quite a stir among pet parents who for the past 10 years have believed such diets were preferable. The following post digs a little deeper into this issue. Trying to clarify the confusion about Grain Free Recipes and the Recent FDA Report will take a bit of explanation.

On July 12, 2018, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) issued an alert regarding a possible connection with Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs fed grain free diets. This was done as a precautionary measure. The precautionary measure offered no solutions and just caused a scare among dog owners. This is the sort of thing that causes paranoia. Paranoia leads to knee-jerk reactions among pet owners, retailers, various pet food brands that produce and sell these diets, and the Internet community (which wastes no time in jumping to violent conclusions without any real information).

Let’s start with what we know. We don’t know if any of the approximate 100 dogs affected ate the same food. We don’t even know if the food was one brand or many brands – just that it was “grain-free.”

Some dogs also come genetically predisposed to Dilated Cardiomyopathy. King Charles Spaniels, for example. Is this because their heart structures predispose these dogs to DCM or is it because they don’t adequately absorb cysteine, methionine, and/or taurine. Is it because their liver enzyme prevent the production of taurine from cysteine and methionine? It’s one of my favorite phrases because it’s almost always true – more research is required.

The current issue has affected a small population of dogs (less than 100). There has not been a direct link established regarding the cause, but diet is a suspected component.

What should pet food manufacturers consider doing to address this issue? The balance and levels of bioavailable methionine and cysteine are of critical importance. All pet nutritionists should be evaluating diets for these key amino acids. Canine diets should have adequate levels of naturally occurring methionine, cysteine and taurine.

rawz dog food

The RAWZ recipes and those like RAWZ appear to be the best approach. At this time, however, we have to look at the underlying issues of inadequate key amino acids that may ultimately result in other nutritionally related diseases. Even once we’ve come to a conclusion on this DCM problem, we need to remain focused on the root causes of nutritional inadequacies that are caused by improper ingredient selection and processing degradation of those ingredients. Currently we’re just not considering these issues when our pets have a problem.

Only with a sound and prudent approach to making changes that further balance pet diets, can we provide balanced, superior nutritional profiles. Will it cost more? YES. The alternative is keeping our collective heads in the sand. If we choose ignorance, of course we can justify spending less on food that might cause long-term harm to our pet’s health. I’m offering this alternative in jest, of course. WE SHOULD ALL WANT TO KNOW MORE.

At this juncture, however, we need to look at what is available (rather than what is not). As I said, I like RAWZ (or diets like that) for both dogs and cats. RAWZ has high protein quality because it is 100% rendered-free. Available protein and amino acid profiles are retained to a greater percentage due to less processing.  Dehydrated proteins and real meats contain higher levels of naturally occurring methionine, cysteine, and taurine compared to some excessively processed meals, such as chicken meal or fish meal. Taurine supplementation has always been added to all RAWZ dry recipes (both canine and feline). RAWZ is a non-profit company (whatever that means in terms of their business practices I do not know) but I believe they have our pets best potential in mind.

Unfortunately determining the best ingredients is still a bit like driving through a London fog, for the consumer and the nutritionist alike. Nutritionists are not always in charge of ingredient quality. It’s a slippery slope. To confuse matters even further, a protein in certain plants called lectins has recently been shown to be detrimental to our digestive system. It seems to cause digestive issues that can create allergies and autoimmune diseases. These somewhat toxic plant proteins will affect our immune system by damaging the digestive tract.

The plants most implicated at this point belong to the nightshade family (potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant). Pressure cooking can neutralize lectins in legumes, but the lectins in most grains and nightshades are a different matter. Those lectins do not seem to be heat labile. Since these findings are in their infancy we need to see how they play out. For more information about lectins read Dr. Steven Gundry’s The Plant Paradox.

Nutrition might be a science, but some days it feels more like an art form.

Has there ever been a similar situation with DCM and dogs? 

In late 1990’s there were a number of dog breeds reported with DCM in which diet may have been associated. In these cases, the suspected diet type was based on lamb meal and rice and formulated for maintenance (lower protein and not as well fortified). The dogs were generally large breeds (e.g. Newfoundlands). It was postulated that low circulating taurine was the cause and may have been due to inadequate taurine syntheses in the liver. This may serve as an early indicator of shortcomings in sulfur-containing amino acid supply (methionine and cysteine).

Was the lamb naturally short on sulfur-containing amino acids? The result of studies indicated that lamb meal was very low in cysteine and methionine. These meat meal products are processed at high heat without a lot of research to determine the effects of high-heat cooking quality food products. We do know that canning and rendering causes substantial degradation of protein quality. Rendering is more detrimental to ingredient quality than canning. Studies have shown reduced levels of taurine in cats fed some rendered foods. Fortunately for cats, taurine has been added to most cat diets because of resulting cardiomyopathy in the early days of manufacturing kibble. The cat seems to manifest the disease earlier than dogs and manufacturers found that out the hard way when the first kitty kibbles came on the market. I’m sure these manufacturers also claimed these diets were “all your cat needs.” Never listen to a manufacturer that claims any single diet is all your pet needs to survive. FULL STOP.

So, is there anything inherently wrong with grain-free diets? First, it must be understood that taurine is synthesized in the liver from sulfur amino acids methionine and cysteine. If there is an inadequate supply of these amino acids from plants then it stands to reason there will be a shortage of taurine. We also know that taurine may be depleted by certain food ingredients. Legume seeds like peas, lentils and chickpeas have low levels of methionine and cysteine and plants do not produce taurine. Thus, these ingredients must be paired with complementary proteins like those from animal sources. I found scarce reports in the literature evaluating the legumes or tubers on canine or feline taurine levels. There was some indication that soybean (a legume seed) protein decreased taurine in feline plasma. Another reason to avoid soybean meal in carnivore diets.

As it turns out, legume seeds can be rich in oligosaccharides, which could, at higher levels, lead to more fermentation and ultimately lower taurine. We need more study in that area since, for humans, fructose oligosaccharides are an important digestive fiber.

What should we consider doing to address this issue? First, gather more information through broader studies of DCM. There may be some common aspects to the previous issues in the 1990’s that have been overlooked.

It is unlikely that all grain-free diets are actually implicated despite the early scare. It might be only one or two. It’s also possible the animals were already predisposed to the condition. Furthermore, the balance of bioavailable methionine and cysteine are of importance. Nutritionists should be evaluating their diets for the bioavailability of these key amino acids.

Ultimately WE ALL NEED TO GET BACK TO BASICS. I’ll beat this drum until every pet food manufacturer’s ears bleed. We need to look to the animals’ primitive diets for guidance.

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